The ‘meme’ circulating the internet and among my personal friend group is that 2016 was something of an awful year.
Between a poisonous US election cycle, horrifying acts of senseless violence caused by refugees driving trucks in Europe, nightclub and other shootings, and high profile celebrity deaths it all conspired to create a sense of 2016 having been a bad year.
Truthfully, there’s a lot about which we should all be concerned, and I think that people’s sense of unease heading into 2017 is well-deserved, if sometimes misplaced.
What do I mean by that? Well, it is misplaced to be worried about symptoms instead of causes. The fever is worrying but it is not the cause of the illness.
At Peak Prosperity we are always and ever trying to determine what the root causes are, and burrowing around in the evidence to see if we can detect what is really happening and why.
As difficult as this is for some people to ingest, let alone digest, I view trump as the inevitable symptom of a nation that has for too long ignored its own people, especially those who are not in the protected classes. The populist uprisings all over the world are merely the beginning symptoms of a very long period of disruption that are precisely what we were speaking to when we said “The next twenty years are going to be completely unlike the last twenty years” way back in 2008.
The inevitable consequences of the confluence of many expensive trends all on this relatively tiny window of time (yes, I view 20 years as pretty short given what is likely to transpire during them) are going to be highly disruptive.
Some of those disruptions will be positively directed and some quite negative. Whether we rise to the challenges and make the best of what will come remains an open question, but I remain 100% convinced that each additional increment of time spent pretending that the prior direction remains the right direction represents wasted time and resources.
As bluntly as I can say it, anybody who found the level of disruptions on 2016 overwhelming is going to have a hard time navigating the future. The period of adjustment has only just begun.
2017 - A Sea of Exponentials
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." ~ Al Bartlett
Perhaps the most vexing challenge remains how to more effectively communicate the various predicaments and problems we face.
It’s not having more numbers, or more data, that’s for sure. If numbers and data ‘worked then we’d have taken a very different path sometime back in the 1950’s.
As Admiral Hyman Rickover said in a speech to a group of doctors in 1957:
“I think no further elaboration is needed to demonstrate the significance of energy resources for our own future. Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is - in the long run - none.
The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot.
Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.
In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift. Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank.
A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.”
His logic was as irrefutably sound then as it is today. Such information was known at the highest levels throughout government and academia. But there was no, and continues to be no, sustained and well-funded efforts to grapple with the basic dilemma posed by increasing population as dramatically as we have all the while living on, literally eating, fossil fuels to encourage that rapid population growth.
"Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?" ~ Al Bartlett
The American Museum of Natural History recently put out an amazingly good and informative video on human population growth over time.
As they noted, it took 200,000 years for humans to reach the first billion, and only 200 years more from that moment to reach 7 billion.
Here it is – try hard not to notice the similarity between the clicks denoting each new million people and the sound of a Geiger counter:
If you overlaid human’s exploitation of fossil fuels the curves at the end overlay to an astonishing degree. Not astonishing because it’s some sort of mental leap requiring acute intellectual agility, but because of how little attention it receives practically anywhere in the halls of power or academia.
Again, Hyman Rickover linked the population and economy firmly to energy and prosperity way back in 1957. He was extraordinarily influential. President Carter took a few important steps but then something happened. The idea of limits and thoughtful planning gave way to something else… a headlong rush into endless growth and a profound, almost pathological aversion to facing the simple math that says “exponential growth on a finite planet is impossible (and irresponsible).”
The rapidity of population growth has not given us enough time to readjust our thinking. I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendants - those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age. ~ Hyman Rickover, 1957
The predicament we face is really quite profound. I submit to you that people know this in their guts and the fact that they do goes a long way towards describing the feeling dread many people report they are carrying here at the start of 2017 and cannot seem to shake.
And of course they are. Not having a plan for how to even feed 7.4 billion people, heading to 9 or 10 billion people, without massive fossil fuel calorie subsidies is a troubling thought. If it’s not troubling, then more thinking needs to be applied.
Here’s the one chart that should sober everyone up.
A complex chart, so let me break it down. The top line is the assumed rate of growth in energy use given the amount of economic growth that the world expects/desires/wants and that the financial system needs. Without that growth our entire financial system will become unstable and probably collapse. Not the smartest system to saddle ourselves with, but there you have it – it’s either expanding or collapsing (or threatening to do so).
With a functioning economy, all of our high-tech dreams can come to pass. Without a functioning economy, you can forget about them. It’s binary. If you doubt this, just go visit Greece and check out their high tech industries, new product development, and public investment and deployment of new technology and infrastructure. Or lack thereof, as is actually the case. Ditto for Venezuela.
So we care about that top line continuing to grow smoothly, but as I’ve noted extensively, one of the most linear and durable relationships of them all is that between economic growth and growth in energy consumption. If you want more economic growth, you are, by definition, asking for more energy growth. That’s what the top black line is charting.
The bottom blue line in the above chart is the total amount of primary energy that fossil fuels will be able to deliver. As you can see, someday, as Admiral Rickover noted, those finite fossil fuels cannot deliver any more energy, they plateau for about a decades, and then slowly disappear from the human experiment.
I have no doubts that the gap between the top black line and the bottom blue line can be reasonably filled by alternative energy sources until about 2030. Solar, wind and the like, can almost certainly fill the void. But I have severe doubts about the next 25 years, where the equivalent of 100% of the 2030 fossil fuel energy will have to be replaced…by other means.
First, humanity has never transitioned from one energy source to another in anything less than 50 years. And that was always in the context of moving from a lower density (worse) energy source to a higher energy density (better) one. Solar and wind are far less dense than oil. Moving from wood to coal was easy and made sense because coal is a superior energy source compared to wood.
To drive this point home, here’s a fascinating map of world shipping traffic. Stare at the number of dots plying the waters (each day is ~ 4 seconds of your time):
Do you know how important shipping is to the world economy? It’s enormously important. Do you know how many of those dots are currently powered by electricity? Zero.
Fast forward to 2030 when humanity has to figure out how to begin running at least half of those dots by other means over the next 25 years, and suddenly (I hope) the scale of the issue begins to take shape. Wishful thinking isn’t going to cut it.
Same observations but for air travel:
Again, the number of planes in the above map running on electricity is zero, unless the map coincidentally happened to encompass the few days when the one solar plane in the world trundled across the screen slowly with a single person on board.
And yet here we are, in the finally days of 2016, without any obvious governmental attention to these important, vital matters. Worse, the central banks are doing everything possible to deny that anything matters at all, besides highly elevated and rising financial asset prices.
These are really big issues and the question, as always, is what on earth is any of us to do about any of this?
How to Have A Positive Impact
Here’s where we need your help. Of course we strongly advocate that you get your own resilience plans in order first and attend to those before anything else.
For some this will be a lengthy process, for others much shorter or already mostly done or in progress.
It is through our own examples that we have the best chance of changing others. If we lead, some will follow. Indeed, unless or until we change ourselves, there’s no point at all in trying to reach others to convince them to change.
For example, it fell more than a little flat for me when Al Gore was out on his Inconvenient Truth tour when his own utility bill for his 20-room Tennessee ‘home’ (mansion?) was $30,000. Authenticity matters.
Next, we need help reaching more people and organizations, and the more influential they are the better. As Malcom Gladwell wrote in his book The Tipping Point, the moment of critical social mass happens not when 51% of people are activated, but when the right 8% get involved.
Adam and I have a very aggressive plan for 2017 that will include lots more efforts at expanding the reach of our message. We need your help.
Finally, my personal themes for 2017 is about how to write better stories and to use narratives to convey my points more concisely and more powerfully. I have a stack of books on my bedside table that are about storytelling, persuasion, selling, and the psychology of decision-making. I need to learn more, and quickly!
To this end, we’re going to be using more video, and joining forces with other organizations that have reach and will afford the possibility to reach new audiences. The UN and Glenn Beck are two examples from 2016 that show just how agnostic we are in terms of trying new things. What matters is maximizing the impact we can bring to bear.
An important part of this storytelling will be elevating the positive things that are happening to greater prominence. People need to know what works and what is working. Problem and predicament definition alone only works for a very small sub-set of the overall population. Everybody else needs to have a direction to head, a model to follow, and a vision that comports with reality.
So I’d like your help in identifying and promoting these positive developments. While I will be the first to jump up and down if/when we solve the battery problem, which will change everything, it also need to be said that there are already a thousand things we have in and that we are not using or doing already, which brings us back to the storytelling and narrative angle.
It is my view that if we had the right story in place, we’d already be using solar thermal to heat water for every building on earth. The reason we don’t has nothing to do with economics or rational arguments. It is as simple and as difficult as having the wrong stories in place which all summarize to We don’t have to do this, so we’re not going to.
I have some really big ideas in my head for how to go about recrafting our narratives and getting people involved in and engaged with charting their own futures. I don’t want to jinx any of them, so more on those later.
As much as we accomplished in 2016, there was also a sense of treading water. Brand new bubbly highs in the stock market blunted many people’s sense of urgency, while the various populist movements took a lot of energy from a lot of people that would otherwise have been directed at the sorts of issues outlined above.
The profound lack of investment in oil development will have a future impact on supplies so look for a big upside movement in oil prices somewhere between 2018 and 2021 (with war/conflict in the Middle East or with Russia being an immediate upside catalyst that could happen at any moment).
Those high oil prices will shock the heck out an over-leveraged system with well over $230 trillion of outstanding debt. All of that and more is coming and there’s nothing to be done about it except carry on as best and as with as much daily joy as we can.
The social and political divisiveness that has appeared and seems destined to increase is a certified tragedy because we need to work together on these many issues and predicaments. We need the opposite of divisiveness.
With a shared understanding of the problems, we have a chance to rally our resources around effective responses and solutions where those may exist.
I remain deeply grateful to be able to serve in this role, to have your support as I use my unusual gift as a translator (of complex ideas) to help create a world worth inheriting. At the same time, I am aware that I have been at this for ten years now, and my wish that more progress had been made.
This is going to be a pivotal year, and I want to inspire and challenge this community to find new ways to work together to help more people understand what’s truly at stake – the future prosperity of the entire world.
Thank you for your help in the past, and the future.